A Vigorous Defense of “The Shape of Water”
Last week, Guillermo del Toro’s masterful film “The Shape of Water” won big at the Oscars. The movie took home not only the Academy Award for Best Picture, but also awards for Best Director, Best Original Score, and Best Production Design. As a longtime admirer of del Toro’s work—his 2006 historical fantasy “Pan’s Labyrinth” is my all-time favorite film—I was naturally delighted to see him receive the accolades he deserves. Make no mistake, “Shape” is a fantastic achievement in its own right, a story unafraid to grapple with serious questions of love, divinity, narrative, and humanity.
But in the wake of del Toro’s win, a particularly noxious strain of online criticism has emerged in ostensibly “conservative” quarters. To take these pundits, which include Brian Godawa and Rod Dreher, seriously, “Shape” is a new high-water mark for Hollywood decadence—a celebration of “bestiality” because of its depiction of romance between a woman and (for lack of a better term) a merman. (We also have a particularly terrible take from the Daily Wire that serves as a textbook example of the evils of eisegesis. One could write an equally terrible piece interpreting “Shape” as a right-wing parable about the horrors of big government oppressing a culturally out-of-step minority. Not all movies are ultra-political, nor should they be.) It is difficult to exaggerate the inanity of these charges—criticisms that reflect the pathologies of their proponents and stem from a willful misinterpretation of del Toro’s actual work. I can’t help being reminded of the pointless furor over Darren Aronofsky’s misunderstood “Noah,” a movie that also sparked outraged reactions and accusations of “Gnosticism.”
Let’s clear up that first point: the “bestiality” accusation is patently nonsensical. A core theme of the film is that the merman is human (or superhuman) in all the ways that matter. (Alternatively—spoiler alert!—one might reasonably conclude that, in “Pan’s Labyrinth” fashion, the female lead isn’t herself human.) Supposing we accept the Thomistic/Aristotelian definition of “man” as “rational animal,” there’s obviously no “sex with fish” going on here.
Furthermore, anyone tempted to roast “Shape” for “promoting bestiality” should be ready to toss C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia onto the same blaze. Consider this gem from The Magician’s Nephew: “In Narnia the Beasts lived in great peace and joy and neither the Witch nor any other enemy came to trouble that pleasant land for many hundred years. King Frank and Queen Helen and their children lived happily in Narnia and their second son became King of Archenland. The boys married nymphs and the girls married woodgods and river-gods.” The merman in “Shape” is literally described as a river god. Any attempt to differentiate these smacks of arbitrariness.
Dreher does go on to take a more philosophical line, arguing that “[i]t cannot be for nothing that the research facility where she learns compassion for the swamp monster (her future lover) is named Occam—this, given that it was William of Occam who is credited with overturning traditional Christian metaphysics, which taught that purpose is intrinsic to matter. In other words, the film expresses historian Yuval Noah Harari’s take on modernity: ‘The entire contract can be summarized in a single phrase: humans agree to give up meaning in exchange for power.’”
But this is nonsense on every level. First of all, the “Occam” lab is a fundamentally terrible place. It is a site of torture from which both woman and merman must be freed. Dreher’s reading is precisely backwards. Moreover, the film supports the view that purpose is intrinsic to matter: the female protagonist’s physical disfigurement is essential to who she is, and serves as the linchpin of the film’s climax where her material form is not transcended, but perfected. Finally, everything in the movie screams that meaning is more important than power: our heroine and her friends are certainly “weak in the eyes of the world” when juxtaposed against their powerful and violent enemies. Del Toro’s movies, as I pointed out in my original review of the film, have always celebrated meaning over power. All of these accusations are manifestly weak.
Of course, fundamentalists of various stripes have said imprudent things about the evils of cinema for decades (“Harry Potter promotes Satanism!”). So what makes this latest brouhaha different?
Put simply, this controversy exemplifies the unhealthy attachment of some (admittedly very smart) theological conservatives to a particular “decline narrative.” In this narrative, Christians who hold traditional theological views (particularly regarding sexuality) are in imminent danger of being exposed, hounded from public life, and ghettoized at every turn. Everything in mass culture—everything—must be viewed as a bellwether of this coming apocalypse. “You cannot expect your children to be salt and light to a culture that gives its highest honor to a movie celebrating bestiality as an act of liberation,” Dreher warns.
Not only is this factually wrong, and gratuitously insulting to those who currently work to be salt and light, it reflects a curiously monolithic view of “the culture.” Are boundary-pushing, religiously-inflected films like Aronofsky’s “mother!” or Martin Scorsese’s “Silence” really the same sort of thing as “Rampage” or “Transformers 4”? In my mind, the opposite of sincere Christian faith (and love for God) is not doubt or struggle, but indifference; a Hollywood that simply ignores religious themes has embraced nihilism more fully than a Hollywood that wrestles with them. Should the books of Job and Ecclesiastes should be tossed from the biblical canon for fomenting ambiguity? Obviously not. And likewise, art that engages with questions of ultimacy, whether or not it provides answers, is situated somewhere along the road to truth. Viewing the culture through that lens, it gives me great hope that films like “Shape” and “mother!” and “Silence” can still get made. The world is questing.
“Shape” is plainly not a perfect movie—morally or aesthetically. But neither is it the harbinger of the Final Judgment or Great American Cultural Collapse that its critics have suggested. And more sober-minded critics might recognize that perhaps del Toro’s movie has thought-provoking things to say about the image of God, human beings’ ability to recognize the Divine in their midst, and the dangers of consumerism. That doesn’t even require such a writer to like or approve of the film (consider this take, which criticizes the movie while avoiding the apoplexy of Dreher, Godawa, and others.). A measured response merely acknowledges that art is complex and frequently admits of nuanced meanings.
For instance, consider the poem that closes out the film: “Unable to perceive the shape of you, I find you all around me, for you are everywhere.” This is an adaptation of a medieval Islamic poem plainly directed toward God himself (and one that, as it were, captures the essence of classical theism: God is both wholly transcendent and wholly immanent). Accordingly, whether consciously or not, del Toro is clearly grasping towards some insight about God’s relationship with the world. “The Shape of Water” isn’t just a straightforward love story, and that insight needs to be taken seriously if the film is to be read fairly.
There are plenty of good reasons to love or hate del Toro’s cinematic canon. But “pandering to the worst excesses of modernity” is certainly not one of them.